Billy Ball – Book Review

Billy Martin Book Review – “Billy Ball” 

I always thought of Billy Martin as a weasel or a rat.  I never really liked him but over the last little while I have been looking into his numbers and he had an outstanding career. 
 After reading this, I think the man was incredibly fragile, a relic, a braggart, ultra-sensitive and a fierce competitor.  He was shaken too easily by what others did but he rarely gave in.  Also, I found the Yankee rah-rah was laid on really thick.
 I didn’t really know what to think before reading this book.  Right off the bat he says this is book is going to be about managing – his reasons for doing the things he did – and he started by grading other managers.  He didn’t like any of them; none were as good as Billy Martin.  The only one he liked was Casey Stengel.  The only non-Yankee I think he respected and liked was Chuck Dressden.  He had nice things to say about Earl Weaver, Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Tommy Lasorda but he made the point clear that he was smarter and a better manager than them all. 
 This was written after the 1986 season and Billy was then a special assistant to the GM, he last managed in 1985.  He quickly takes us through his childhood and up to the Oakland Oaks and meeting Casey Stengel and then the move to the Yanks in the early 1950’s.  He roomed with Joe DiMaggio as a rookie, then, when DiMaggio retired he roomed with the new Yankee center fielder Mickey Mantle.

 

 
 For a couple chapters he gushes over how great the Ol’ Professor’s Yankees were.  He talks about how he was a best buddy with Mickey, Whitey Ford and Yogi.  I could have used some more stories about the bedroom antics of Joltin’ Joe and barroom antics of Mantle but he left me wanting more.
 It is in these chapters, describing his playing career that he starts defending himself by what “they” say.  He never really says who “they” are but it seems to be a combination of media, fans, historian, peers, executives but mostly his own legacy. 
 Martin was peeved how whenever the Yanks matched up with the Dodgers, the papers would do a position by position comparison and all the papers would always give the Dodgers a huge edge at second base.  Martin goes on here for several pages comparing himself to other players, he makes claims how he was a better playoff performer, he compares his World Series stats to Jackie Robinson’s year by year.  He plays up the catch he made on a wind-blown pop-up with the bases loaded as if it were Willie Mays’ 1954 catch or Devon White’s 1992 catch.    He did have great World Series’ and his regular season numbers were very plain.  He even comically, though unintended, projected his 99 World Series at-bats over a 600 at-bat season and claims how he would have been in the running for a batting championship, hit 25 home runs etc.  It was almost sickening how much he had his back-up writing this. 
 The grudge he held against Casey Stengel when he was traded is also a mark on his character.  In hindsight he regrets his actions and he made amends with his old manager but he gave Stengel the silent treatment for several years.
 Billy finally gets into managing and this was more impressive than his playing career, he starts at how second basemen make the best managers, how hard he worked at everything – at least when he is bragging here he has more to back it up.  Of course, he won’t let the reader forget one thing about how great his feats are and how many teams he turned around.  He personally takes credit (he seems offended that no one else gives him credit) for saving both the Texas and Oakland franchises.
 Billy seemed to step on everyone’s toes wherever he went, but he was a brilliant manager.  He was ahead of his time when he started putting Mattingly in the second spot in the line-up (high OPS higher in the line-up) his batting order construction is ahead of its time.  He identifies an early idea of using or rather abusing replacement level scrap heap players.  He recognized a great and growing use for computers and statistics but he was also extremely old school and wanted maximum aggression, heart and loyalty from his players.  He chastises player for being dumb, he carries on and on about how smart he is and how dumb modern players are. 
 I was impressed how he would be so flexible with every team he was with.  He was truly a master of personnel use.  He often claims he was the best judge of talent in baseball and every team he managed was completely different, but, he adapted to the players he didn’t make them all play BillyBall.  BillyBall was different in Oakland, in New York in Detroit and in Minnesota – but it was always hard-nosed and aggressive.
 Once he walks us through the 1970’s he starts defending himself against “them” again.  He goes on and on about how he didn’t blow out pitchers arms.  He thinks he got fired in Oakland because his 1-2-3 starters were 1-2-3 in CG in 1980.  He said he was a pioneer in pitch counting and went by a pitch count, not IP.  He claims he gets the most out of pitchers gives extensive examples of Ron Guidry, Jim Perry and assorted bums in Detroit and Oakland.
 Billy then talks about how all his managing jobs came to an end.  He is getting no sympathy from me.  He was in conflict with every front office he was with.  He wanted complete control over what happened on the field and as soon as a GM or owner had to put the reigns on BillyBall, Martin would throw a tantrum, usually involving name-calling, idle threats and finalities to his boss’ face or to reporters.  Many of his defenses in the book are of the “I told you so” type or the “I’m right, everyone else is wrong” type.  Surprisingly, he liked Charlie Finley and George Stienbrenner best of all the owners.  He even had the gall to ask Charlie Finley for money when he sold the A’s.  Martin thought he added $4million to the franchise value in the 3 years he was there and he thought he deserved a cut.       
 In the last few chapters Billy defends himself in his feud with Reggie Jackson and all the flak he took in the media during that time.  He seems to be trying to turn his image around.  I did not witness the New York media in the 1970s and 1980s but it seems to have disturbed Martin greatly and he defends a lot of his questionable, regardless of how marginal, decisions here.
 In one of the last chapters Martin goes on a rant, saying how everything has gone sour in regards to guaranteed contracts, batting gloves, spitballs, fads, stealing signs, clubhouse cold-cut trays, private rooms on the road, families on the road, the minor league system, free agency, player agents, umpires, third base coaches, player intensity, million dollar contracts, rules, ML and AL baseball executives, travel, expansion, designated hitters, his supposed alcoholism, design of fielder’s gloves, press, etc.
 At one point, what really made him seem like a relic is his chapter on drugs in baseball.  It is hard to follow and it seems that Billy had no idea what was going in his clubhouse.  I have no idea if he is talking about steroids, or recreational drugs or anything or nothing.  Billy really seemed out of touch with this and he does admit it.  He even uses colloquial terms like, “on drugs” “do drugs” and even “user” and “pusher”.
 He never seemed to make any friends as a manager; he was a great motivator and probably a really hard man to play for.  This book seems like a cry for help, the search for the man “Billy” not the creator of BillyBall.  But a search for the man would require him to delve more into his personal life, rather than defensive, argumentative chapter after defensive argumentative chapter and posturing his greatness.  The book is almost a conversation, Billy talking about “them” — “they” said I was too small, “they” said I led Mickey Mantle astray, “they” said I don’t know how to manage a pitching staff, “they” say I drink too much.  He comes off like a brat who plays the “poor me” card at every hardship he faced on the field.
 Anyways, interesting read once you get past the dripping Yankee patriotism and blatant self-righteousness.  

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  • Billy isn’t lacking any self confidence, is he. I assume this book was ghost written, according to your conclusion “would require him to delve more into his personal life, rather than defensive, argumentative…” Do you think they should have focussed more on the man instead of Billy’s own sense of his “legendary” status?

  • Early

    I don’t think it is self-confidence as much as it is self-worth building, for his own peace-of-mind. Billy wrote this book with Phil Pepe. It is all in Billy’s first person.

    The work seems written to an audience of Yankee fans, as a way to tie up loose ends at the end of his career, a death bed confession if you may.

    Billy says in his book he wants people to remember him as Billy the Man not as Billy the Manager of the Yankees, but gives no insight as to his personality off the field. Except the chapters about boozing it up at the Copa with Mickey and Whitey. Which only defends the charges he had as being a corrupter of Mickey.